Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Advent of Empathy

Especially having children so close in age, it's been interesting to observe the different tracks they've taken in their individual paths of development. The most clear divergence I've seen so far has been in language acquisition. Abby was early and clear; so far Michael is a little later to the game and a lot harder to understand.

However, looking back, I can see that this is a trend that has been steady from the beginning. Listening to Mia's constant babble, I can easily compare it to what we so frequently heard from Abby at her age, and clearly remember that Michael was always lacking. He's just never been a chatter. He's always been a thinker, pensive and plotting.

Certainly, his propensity for creative trouble-making has always far exceeded Abby's. Long before it seemed he should be capable of such strategy, there he was: two moves ahead. He'd get you distracted with one thing so that he could shoot across in the other direction to grab the phone you left behind.

He's also proven to be the intuitive and sensitive one. On the day, almost a year ago now, that I gave birth to Mia practically in front of them both, it was he who sensed that something was amiss, though he was barely a year old himself. Abby was far more concerned about the graham crackers that he had and she wanted. Even before that, about as far back as we began administering time-outs for Abby, nearly every time he'd sidle right up to her in an attempt to provide comfort. He still does it occasionally today, though he's learned that it often earns him a shove or punch (and extra time-out for Abby).

If I lose my temper and my cool, it just gets Abby fiery and defiant. But poor little Michael, he's made of tenderer stuff, and always has been.

Imagine my surprise, then- this past Sunday- when we reached the climax of Frozen on our first viewing together, and my brave, steel-hearted Abigail crumbled to pieces before my eyes. In my shock, it took me a moment to respond to her, overcome with a sadness I'd not yet seen before. It was not tears of pain, fear, or frustration that began to pour out of her, but rather the soul-deep, grief-filled "ugly" cry that contorts the face and folds the body with the force of its weight.

As her head fell into her little hands I grabbed her up and tucked her into my lap, holding her tightly and whispering words of comfort in her ear. Even as I began to encouragingly point out and narrate to her the good that was coming out of a deeply emotional scene, I tried to ascertain where her reaction had come from. Was it the tears on her Mima and mother's faces, the atmosphere of the room, or did she have a clear understanding of what was playing out before her on the screen? Due to the fact that she was thoroughly glued to the movie, I suspect the latter, but regardless of where she picked up on the current of emotion, the clear fact was that she was empathizing, a thing I'd never really seen her do before in earnest.

I've had flashes here and there, moments where she noticed my distress and questioned it, but she rarely offers comfort in response. And after months of trying to explain to her that Mia's cries mean she is being too rough, and Michael's screams mean that she's doing something to make him unhappy, I'd begun to wonder whether she could empathize much at all, yet. To be fair, I think much of the problem with the situations I've just described is not that she can't see the effect she's having, but more that she's caught up in her own momentum and doesn't have the impulse control to stop.

Still, it's left me curious as to just how emotionally conscious she's managed to become, and I suppose that now I have my answer. Though it broke my heart to pieces to see her so sad, she was quickly wiping those tears away and beaming with equal portions of happiness as she enjoyed the fairy-tale ending that was promised her. And though I never want to see her look so sad again, I can't deny the pride I felt in the moments just afterward. She showed me the size of her heart that day, and she sure does have a big one.